Norah O’Donnell is in danger of losing the top spot at “CBS Evening News,” as cost-slashing execs at the broadcasting giant quietly search for her replacement amid sagging ratings, The Post has learned.
The 47-year-old news anchor — who muscled her way into the evening slot in 2019 as she fled a reportedly strained relationship with co-host Gayle King on “CBS This Morning” — now stands vulnerable to the network’s bean counters as her ratings have stayed stubbornly stuck in third place, according to sources close to the situation.
Insiders likewise pointed to O’Donnell’s hefty pay package that is in the ballpark of $8 million a year and a three-year contract that’s slated to expire next spring. She faces the possible heave-ho after CBS shelled out millions to move the evening broadcast to Washington, DC, from New York City to accommodate O’Donnell and her husband, chef Geoff Tracy, and their three children.
Indeed, sources said newly minted co-president Neeraj Khemlani — a former Hearst executive who along with former ABC exec Wendy McMahon was tapped this spring to replace Susan Zirinsky as head of CBS News — is not only looking at replacing O’Donnell, but bringing “CBS Evening News’” back to New York.
Khemlani denied a potential move or anchor shakeup, telling The Post: “There are no plans to move the Evening News from Washington. Norah’s presence in Washington has elevated the CBS Evening News’ coverage on all fronts — politics, breaking news, to big interviews including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just last week. Her reporting on the military and domestic abuse has won awards and changed policies in Washington. And in addition to making headlines, the program is gaining audience share.”
But behind the scenes, The Post has learned that Khemlani has hired management consultants to find ways to trim fat as parent company ViacomCBS continues to digest the 2019 merger of CBS and Viacom, and potentially make the company more attractive for a sale, the sources said.
“Neeraj is charged with bringing down costs and boosting profits and he does not understand why the ‘Evening News’ is in DC,” an insider told The Post.
With rumors of a major shakeup swirling, Khemlani — who along with McMahon formally took the reins from Zirinsky in August — stopped by the DC bureau two and a half weeks ago. But insiders said the visit ended up being more of a “meet and greet” than a state of the union. The new boss didn’t bring up a potential move for the “Evening News” — nor did any staffer dare ask about O’Donnell’s future as its anchor, the sources said.
“I don’t see a world in which Norah O’Donnell anchors the show from DC,” said one insider. “The network definitely needs to lower her salary — halve it or put someone in who costs less.”
Sources speculate that Khemlani may slash O’Donnell’s pay as he pushes her out of the anchor’s chair and gives her a bigger role than she already has on “60 Minutes.” That would mirror CBS’ playbook for “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley, who hosted “CBS Evening News” until 2017.
Sources told The Post that O’Donnell’s diva-like behavior wouldn’t be missed in the network’s corridors. They said she continues to be rude to hair, makeup and wardrobe staff — despite years of complaints that she is “divisive” and “toxic” with colleagues. She also has demanded new designer threads throughout the pandemic, a move that rubbed some the wrong way, as she reports on COVID deaths, political upheaval and unemployment.
It’s a mess that Khemlani inherited from Zirinsky, who three years ago plucked O’Donnell to anchor the “Nightly News” from “CBS This Morning” (since rebranded “CBS Mornings”). At the time, sources told The Post that the move came amid friction between O’Donnell and King, who would not re-sign her contract without an anchor change.
Zirinsky, who denied at the time that O’Donnell’s move had anything to do with King, “thought she could control” O’Donnell’s ego, but she couldn’t, according to one source close to the TV network.
“Nobody listened to Zirinsky,” said the source.
Insiders say O’Donnell had lobbied hard to unseat then-“CBS Evening News” anchor Jeff Glor, convincing Zirinsky to put her in the top job and make a pricey move to Washington, DC. CBS poured millions of dollars into the move, giving the show a redesign and a new theme song, with the still-unrealized hope that it would lift it out of third place.
Indeed, some claim Zirinsky’s run as president was “cut short” because she hitched her wagon to O’Donnell. One source cited the fact that O’Donnell was named managing editor, an esteemed title held by news legend Walter Cronkite that had been retired once Pelley was ousted from the anchor’s desk.
“Why did Zirinsky give O’Donnell the managing editor title?” asked one source. “If it worked, people would have thought Zirinsky was a genius. But it didn’t.”
While Zirinsky had pitched the new “Evening News” as a place for strong investigative journalism, that hasn’t panned out because “Norah O’Donnell didn’t want it,” a source said. When original, investigative stories that are of interest to O’Donnell do make it on the air, she usually is the correspondent presenting the piece, the source said. If O’Donnell isn’t the focus, the segments tend to get shot down by the anchor, the source added.
Others believe that Zirinsky’s stint was brief simply because she “had no wins” and that O’Donnell’s “Evening News” flop is merely emblematic of that. Another person with knowledge said the reason the endeavor failed is that O’Donnell didn’t bring anything new to the role.
“She is a woman version of an outdated anchor,” said the insider. “Her appointment was an example of the worst kind of change. It was about optics.”
Moving the “Evening News” back to New York could be cheap, as the network has broadcast space and a larger staff. One source noted it would be easy to slot someone like fresh-faced 40-year-old “CBS Mornings” co-host Tony Dokoupil, who makes around $2 million, for the gig.
CBS could also recruit elsewhere. MSNBC’s Brian Williams’ contract is up this year, but sources say his salary, which has been rumored to be over $10 million, is too much for CBS to pay. Other candidates who have been bandied about include “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker and “Today” co-anchor Craig Melvin, according to a report from Insider last month.
“We have already made clear that none of those individuals listed from outside of CBS are moving into anchor roles here and Bill Whitaker and Tony Dokoupil already have the best jobs in television,” said a CBS spokeswoman.
“CBS Evening News can succeed reputationally without spending a ton of money,” a person with knowledge of the network’s thinking said.
“They definitely want Norah out but have no clue how to replace her,” said one well-placed source.
The source explained that while the “Evening News” is prestigious, it doesn’t bring in the kind of money that “CBS Mornings” does, so the network does not feel the need to shell out the big bucks.
“CBS doesn’t need to pay someone $8 million to be in third place,” a source said, referring to O’Donnell’s paycheck. “I don’t see Norah wanting to leave her family in DC.”
Although TV ratings are down across the board, O’Donnell’s show continues to bring up the rear. With 5.9 million total viewers in the 2019-2020 season, it trailed “ABC World News Tonight with David Muir” with 9.4 million total viewers and “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” with 8.3 million, according to Nielsen.
O’Donnell helmed half of the 2018-2019 season, which was up slightly with 5.8 million total viewers, but down from the 2017-2018 season under Glor, who reeled in 6.2 million viewers.
While O’Donnell has had some ratings wins, she is also losing the all-important 25 to 54 age demographic. In the most recent season, “CBS Evening News” saw a nearly 15 percent decline in those viewers, to 1.1 million, from the 2017-2018 season hosted by Glor.
Nevertheless, one insider said figuring out the next anchor of the “Evening News” isn’t the top priority at the network right now. The priority is King, who is currently in the “thick” of contract negotiations, the source said. King’s star has risen in recent years for her buzzy interviews with the likes of R.Kelly, the Obamas, “Soho Karen” Miya Ponsetto and Oprah Winfrey, the day after she sat down with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
King has been rumored to be mulling a move to the West Coast to be closer to her granddaughter, who was born last month. CBS is in talks to give King a new contract that may include a Los Angeles-based show and a role creating content for its streaming service, Paramount+, a source told The Post. But it’s unclear whether King wishes to remain at the network.
“Gayle doesn’t need to work,” a source said. “Let’s see what she wants to do.”
If King leaves, Khemlani may replace her with “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, whom he recently approached, according to Insider. That would likely mean Dokoupil would go to “Evening News,” a source told the Post, noting that “CBS Mornings,” which is in last place in the morning show ratings, needs another major shakeup, after it recently moved studios and added co-anchor Nate Burleson.
“Everyone is waiting to see what Gayle does. She has become the face of the network,” the source said, before turning to O’Donnell. “We all see the writing on the wall.”